Weak on the Feast of Weeks or Whatever Happened to Shavuot?
Ellen Frankel calls Shavuot a neglected stepchild” of the Jewish holidays.1 Other holidays have memorable traditions or customs to serve as a symbols: Passover/bitter herbs, Yom Kippur/fasting, Hanukkah/dreidels. The elements of association for Shavuot (dairy products, the book of Ruth, and the scroll of the Torah) are less familiar. Shavuot as a commemoration of the Giving of the Law and as an agricultural holiday has little dramatic appeal. Not many Jews live on farms today and not many believe that the Almighty literally carved the Law on tablets of stone. Perhaps because Shavuot is not tied directly to a biblical/historical event it does not get much attention.
After all, the Passover seder festivities recalls the dramatic events of the Exodus from Egypt. At Purim we have the reading of the scroll of Esther and the staging of plays and carnivals. The special synagogue readings and chants make Yom Kippur a holy day that stands apart from all others with its solemnity and quality of awe. But what can we say today about Shavuot?
The Original “Earth Day?”
There was a time when Shavuot occupied a most important position for our people. The Bible describes it as being an agricultural holiday—an occasion to present the first of the crops to God. In Bible times, agriculture was the basis of the economy; the basis of life. People’s welfare and wealth were tied to the land. In an agrarian society, the “paycheck” was the harvest, and there could be “deductions” in pestilence, thievery and drought.
God promised that agricultural results would differ from that of all other nations. For Israel was the nation with whom God covenanted. God’s promise to Israel was not like a doting celestial grandfather. The promise and the covenant had requirements. In order to be blessed, we had to obey God and his word. As it is written in the Torah:
If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the LORD your God will keep his covenant of love with you, as he swore to your forefathers. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. He will bless the fruit of your womb, the crops of your land—your grain, new wine and oil—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks in the land that he swore to your forefathers to give you.
God himself was the provider and could give a bounteous harvest or allow a shortfall. If Israel obeyed, she found a full table, if she disobeyed, she found a shortfall at harvest time. Therefore, it was right to give the first of the crops back to him as a way of showing our gratitude. In fact, the Torah stated that we couldn’t even eat from the produce until the firstfruits had been dedicated to God.2
Shavuot is described in Leviticus 23. It is linked to Passover, occurring near the end of the Passover season. The very name of the holiday, Shavuot, means “weeks,” coming as it does seven weeks after Passover, as the fiftieth day after the Sabbath that fell during Passover.3 The Passover-Shavuot season followed this order:
- Passover was a one-day holiday.
- Unleavened Bread lasted seven days. (By Second Temple times, Passover and Unleavened bread had been combined into one holiday, so that today, the eight days is designated as Passover.)
- The sheaf of firstfruits of the first barley harvest was presented.4
- There was the counting off of fifty days from the Sabbath that fell during Passover.5
- The firstfruits of the wheat harvest were brought in the form of two cakes of leavened bread.6
Three Amazing Facts About Shavuot
Amazing Fact #1 Shavuot is one of three holidays “firstfruits” mentioned in the Bible.7 The other two firstfruit holidays are Passover and Sukkot.8 Of all the yearly festivals, these were the three that required all men of Israel come to the sanctuary. From the time of David, that sanctuary was in Jerusalem. They would offer the “firstfruits” of the different harvests that took place during the year.9 Passover week fell early in the spring and marked the barley harvest. In the later spring, wheat ripened and was harvested at Shavuot. Sukkot took place in the fall when the final harvest of the year was brought in, which included olives and grapes.
Amazing Fact #2 Shavuot was a major holiday up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Any holiday that requires the entire male population to make a pilgrimage is “major.” We have few details of the way this pilgrimage took place before the captivity, but we do have detailed descriptions of how our people celebrated it in the days of the Second Temple:10
Those who lived near [Jerusalem] brought fresh figs and grapes, but those from a distance brought dried figs and raisins [for fresh fruit would rot on the way]. An ox with horns bedecked with gold and with an olive crown on its head led the way. The flute was played before them until they were nigh to Jerusalem; and when they arrived close to Jerusalem they sent messengers in advance, and ornamentally arrayed their bikkurim [first fruits]. The governors and chiefs and treasurers [of the Temple] went out to meet them. According to the rank of the entrants used they to go forth. All the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would stand up before them and greet them, “Brethren, men of such and such a place, we are delighted to welcome you.”…
The rich brought their bikkurim in baskets overlaid with silver or gold, while the poor used wicker baskets of peeled willow branches, and they used to give both the baskets and the bikkurim to the priest.11
Picture the above scenes and you might see that it was an elaborate festival. Sadly, these beautiful customs came to an abrupt end when the Temple was destroyed.
Amazing Fact #3 Many Scriptures in the Passover Haggadah were originally recited at the dedication of firstfruits. Though we recall the events of the Exodus at Passover today, Shavuot also recalled the four hundred years of bitter servitude in Egypt. In the Book of Deuteronomy, the instructions for celebrating Shavuot conclude with the exhortation, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and follow carefully these decrees.”12
Deuteronomy 26 describes another ceremony to commemorate our redemption from bondage. In fact, a whole part of the Passover Seder includes verses recited at the dedication of firstfruits.13 The text does not specifically state that this ceremony is to be performed on Shavuot, but the ceremony was to be performed on various firstfruit occasions, which would surely include Shavuot. As the worshipper brought his firstfruits, he pronounced: “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us.” Then he recited words that have become familiar from the Passover Haggadah:
“A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders.”
Finally, mention of the firstfruits is actually made.
Why has this ancient firstfruits ceremony been incorporated into the Passover Haggadah? The connection is natural. We were slaves in Egypt. God freed us and brought us into a good land. In gratitude, we now offer to God some of what the land gives to us.
The Jewish “Constitution”
Shavuot was a major holiday that merited its own set of ceremonial celebrations, yet it was the one holiday that the Bible did not commemorate with any historical or profound religious experience. A rabbinic tradition did develop however, linking the holiday to a historical landmark. Shavuot was said to be the anniversary of the Giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, and so was called, “The Season of the Giving of the Law.”14
Many stories and legends of the Midrash speculate on why Mount Sinai was chosen as the place of revelation, and why the people of Israel were chosen to be the recipients of the Law. Several stories explain that the nations of the world were first asked to accept the Torah but refused. One such legend repeats goes on to underscore the responsibility involved in serving God and obeying his commandments:
When God revealed Himself on Sinai, there was not a nation at whose doors He did not knock, but they would not undertake to keep it; as soon as He came to Israel, they exclaimed, All that the Lord has spoken we will do and obey
Accordingly, it is only proper that you should hearken; hence Hear ye the word of the Lord, O House of Jacob
For if you do not, you will be punished on account of your pledge.15
A Most Unusual Shavuot
The legends of the rabbis concerning Shavuot were not the only basis for connecting the holiday with historic events. There was a first-century event that occurred on this holiday. At that time, the sects of Judaism included the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots and the “Nazarenes.” The last group mentioned were Jewish followers of Jesus (Yeshua) of Nazareth.
Yeshua, like other Jews of his day, was in Jerusalem observing Passover. The Brit HaDasha (New Testament) describes the seder that he conducted for his disciples. In the course of the traditional observance, Yeshua alluded to his impending death. And shortly after the seder, Yeshua was arrested on several charges and then crucified. Yeshua had, for some time, expected this to happen. He knew that his death was to be the ultimate Passover sacrifice. Early on in his public ministry, he was called “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Yeshua did not see his death as a political or religious defeat.16
On the contrary, the Gospel accounts describe a victorious resurrection of Yeshua from the dead within three days of Passover. It was a stunning and shocking event. It was unexpected by all—except Jesus. The narrative recounts his appearances in this resurrected state until “he was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Luke 16:19). The chronicles of Yeshua’s followers continue in the Book of Acts.
As observant Jews, Jesus’ disciples had celebrated Passover with him in Jerusalem. Now (fifty days after Passover), they observed Shavuot without him physically present. The writer of Acts describes the Jerusalem crowd on Shavuot:
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven…Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs…
Acts 2:5, 9-11
In other words, Jews from the Diaspora as well as locals had gathered in Jerusalem. They came from as far away as what today would be Iran, Turkey and North Africa. Each spoke his own language. And among the rabbinic traditions for the feast known at that time was the following:
The ten commandments were promulgated with a single sound, yet it says, “All the people perceived the voices” (Exodus 20:18); this shows that when the voice went forth it was divided into seven voices and then went into seventy tongues, and every people received the law in their own language.17
The rabbinic legend of how God offered the Torah to the seventy nations of the world, only to have them refuse it until he came to Israel, was not unlike the tale cited. Not only did the nations of the world number seventy in most of these stories, but the Torah was given to all the nations in their native languages.
According to the narrative, Jesus’ disciples were gathered in a home when a strange, windlike sound filled the air. At the same time, an extraordinary thing happened. Tongues of fire appeared to lap at their heads, they “were filled with the Holy Spirit” and they began speaking in languages other than their own. This caused a crowd to gather, as Jewish people from different nations heard their own languages spoken. They were amazed that a group of Aramaic-speaking Galilean Jews could suddenly show such linguistic fluency. Others apparently thought that they were drunk, but one of the disciples, Peter, retorted that it was only nine in the morning, too early for the bars to be open!18
Just as every nation at Mount Sinai heard the Law in their own language, so Jews from every nation heard the disciples of Yeshua in their own tongue on that Shavuot. Then Peter addressed the crowd in the common language of Aramaic. Or, perhaps was what he had to say of such importance that he was still being heard in each nation’s own language? The narrative does not say.
If this Shavuot scenario resembled the rabbinic stories of Mount Sinai and the Giving of the Law, so was Peter’s choice of topic. Apparently Peter was acquainted with the tradition that King David was born and died on Shavuot because he chose that day to speak on the death of David and the resurrection of Yeshua. Peter described Jesus as a man unlike other men whose credentials included his miracles and wonders. Peter went on to say that most of the people didn’t accept him, and he was crucified. However, Peter pointed out that death was not the end of the story. He told the crowd that God raised Jesus from the dead, in contrast to King David who “is both dead and buried, and his tomb is here to this day.”19
Resurrection and Shavuot
What does resurrection have to do with Shavuot? Peter quotes King David’s words in Psalm 16, when he spoke of a coming Messiah who would die and be raised to life. He rejoiced that he would not be relegated to Hades, nor would the Messiah see corruption. This was fulfilled, Peter explained, in the resurrection of Yeshua, who was a descendant of David.
Resurrection at the end of time was not a new concept to Peter’s audience. The Bible spoke of it: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). And Jewish tradition spoke to it: In the time of Jesus, it was axiomatic among the Pharisaic Jewish groups that there was to be a coming resurrection.
So, on this Shavuot, not only was the rabbinic scenario of a word from God going forth in several different languages re-enacted, but that word spoke of the resurrection of Jesus.
Shavuot has been relegated to the status of a lesser-celebrated holiday on our Jewish calendar. Yet it is a festival that reminds us that God meets both our physical and our spiritual needs. As a harvest festival, it taught us to regard God’s gifts with gratitude, returning to him, in the form of firstfruits, that which we received. For Jews of later generations, it instilled in us the knowledge that the Scriptures can nourish us spiritually.
For messianic Jews, Shavuot is all that and more. Like the Diaspora Jews gathered in Jerusalem on that first-century Shavuot, we have heard the message of Yeshua in our own language in a way that we can comprehend. Several times Jesus had used the metaphor of a “harvest” to point to the end of time, when the final resurrection would occur.20 In keeping with this metaphor, one of his followers, Paul, referred to a resurrected Yeshua as the “firstfruits.” Just as agricultural firstfruits are the token of the fuller harvest to come, Paul saw Yeshua as the first example of those who would be resurrected later. Shavuot—a lesser holiday? We think not!
- Philip Goodman, The Shavuot Anthology (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1992, ? 1974), p. xvi.
- Leviticus 23:14.
- Cf. Abraham P. Bloch, The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days (New York: Ktav, 1978), p. 179-181.
- Leviticus 23:10.
- Leviticus 23:15-16.
- Leviticus 23:17.
- “Shavuot” means “weeks.” In Exodus 23:16 it is called, Hag Ha-katzir (Festival of the Harvest). The day of firstfruits is found in Numbers 28:26.
- For Passover, see Leviticus 23:10. For Sukkot, see Exodus 23:16.
- Exodus 23:14-17, 19; Deuteronomy 16:16.
- The Mishnah (ca. 200 A.D.) contains material relating both to pre-A.D. 70 life as well as life in the second century.
- Bikkurim 3:3, 8, in the Soncino Talmud version 1:400-401.
- Deuteronomy 16:9-12.
- Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 68b.
- Exodus Rabbah 27:9, Soncino edition.
- Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; John 10:17-18; John 15:13.
- Midrash Tanhuma 26c, as quoted in F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Books of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 59-60.
- See Acts 2:1-11.
- See Acts 2:22-24.
- Matt. 9:37-38; 13:30, 39.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.